Foster mom chats with foster daughter about a problem

How Do You Discipline A Foster Child?

Being a foster parent goes beyond providing a safe environment for a child. It’s up to you to mold who they become. It’s your responsibility to manage their behaviors and help them make positive decisions. As a foster parent you have an opportunity to truly shape and influence the life of a child.

Many of the children in foster care have endured verbal or physical abuse, neglect, and a host of other negative experiences that have impacted their behavior. This trauma impacts their physical, emotional, intellectual, social development, and so many other areas of their life. As a result, they might lack healthy coping mechanisms, emotional regulation skills, or the ability to express themselves effectively.

In most states, including California, foster parents are prohibited from using corporal punishment to discipline the children placed under their care. This means that you cannot use physical acts of discipline like spanking, physical activity or exercise (e.g. running, squats, pushups, etc.),  or food deprivation to correct your foster child. This is one of the primary reasons a foster parent may lose their certificate of approval. Any type of corporal or physical punishment is strictly prohibited. Additionally, shouting and yelling, or any discipline that is considered demeaning, is inappropriate and may be grounds for losing your approval as a foster parent and being banned for life from working with children. These rules apply to the foster parents, another adult in the home, or even siblings of the child in foster care.

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With that in mind, you need to employ safe and appropriate methods for dealing with your foster child’s misbehavior and obtaining compliance.

So how do you discipline foster children? We’ve put together a few techniques that can help you effectively discipline your foster child without subjecting them to undue punishment.

    • Find out what the main issue is
    • Ignore bad behavior whenever possible.
    • Use redirection to distract them from bad behavior
    • Create a rewards system
    • Use Rule of incentives for discipline
    • Place the child on timeout
    • Sentence the child to time-in.

1. Use Rules of discipline 

This rule enforces discipline by framing the desired actions or behaviors as incentives instead of pointing out the negative consequences of not doing them.

For instance, you can say to the child “After doing your homework, you can play video games” rather than “No video games for you unless you finish your homework.”

With the first statement, the child will see video games as a reward for completing their homework, but with the second they’ll just think you’re punishing them by refusing to let them play video games.

The beauty of grandma’s rule of discipline is that it gives the child an illusion of control. It makes them feel like they’re the ones making the decisions that affect them, so to get what they want, they just have to decide to do the right thing.

You can also offer the child a series of choices all of which will get them to do what you want. For example, you can ask “Would you rather play now and tidy your room in an hour or tidy it first and go play?” Either way, the room gets tidied, which is what you wanted. 

As a bonus, the child gets to feel like they have a say in what happens, but you’re still the one calling the shots behind the scenes.

2. Place the child on timeout

This is one of the oldest and most effective techniques for disciplining children known and practiced all over the world.

Timeout involves sending the child to a corner or space, to be alone with only their thoughts for company, reflect on what they’ve done, and cool down for a set period of time. A good rule of thumb is to take the child’s age, add a few minutes to it, and make that how long they have to be on timeout for.

The goal of this technique is to teach the child how to step away from stressful or negative feelings and situations before they do something that lands them in trouble

The timeout space you settle for matters. For some children, a timeout chair in a corner of the room, facing away from everyone else would be okay, while others may benefit from having a time-out room.

Make sure the timeout space is free from distractions or anything the child can use to pass away the time. This means no toys, TV, computers, or games present. Also, avoid speaking to the child until time-out is over.  

Keep in mind that children must never be left secluded or isolated and can never be placed in a locked room. Even in time out, the foster parent must be checking in on the child from time to time. 

3. Sentence the child to time-in

This technique is similar to timeout, but instead of your foster child being sent to be by themselves, they have to stay by you or your partner’s side and do whatever you’re doing.

If you’re gardening, the child has to join in and get their hands dirty. If you’re doing laundry, they’ll be right there loading the washing machine with you.

Only employ time-in when you’re not already under a lot of stress. If you let a child who is already getting on your every last nerve to shadow you around, you might end up completely losing your mind or doing something you might later regret.

Although chores may be assigned to children based on their development, using chores as punishment is also inappropriate. Chores must be part of a bigger strategy and should not be used simply to punish a child.

4.Provide positive guidance and attention

By giving your foster child quality attention, you can deter a lot of behavioral issues and save yourself the headaches. Spend time with them and share activities to create a bond between you.

The child is more likely to adhere to your rules and respect the boundaries you’ve established when they also feel appreciated and respected.

It’s important that you lead by example. Children tend to emulate the behaviors they see around them. You can’t expect your foster child to take you seriously about not using swear words when that’s your language of choice.

Be a shining example. Practice your preach and they’ll likely follow in your footsteps.

5. Seek the help of a professional

Sometimes, your foster child’s issues may flow from issues that you’re incapable of dealing with on your own. In such instances, they may benefit from seeing a therapist who can help them work out the underlying issues and reduce their need to display negative behaviors.

You can even consider having counseling sessions with the entire family to address the difficult problems and patterns that you’re all experiencing at home. Before signing up your foster child for therapy, endeavor to discuss the idea with their caseworkers to ensure that doing so will not be in violation of their foster care terms. In most cases, children in need of emotional or mental health support, will be approved for additional services such as Wrap Around or therapy. If this is the case, the foster parent has the responsibility of ensuring that the child is taken to the necessary appointments and they may also be assigned specific roles in the treatment plan.


It’s normal for foster children to display problematic behaviors. Many of them are dealing with a whole lot of baggage and struggling to come to terms with their reality.

As a foster parent, it’s important that you discipline your foster kids with care, establish boundaries, overcome maladaptive responses, and help them acquire skills they need to manage their behavior and prepare them to be wholesome adults.

Work with your foster agency or the child’s caseworkers to devise a plan for disciplining the child and handling their behaviors that are tailored to their needs and particular situation.

At Knotts Family Agency, we provide high-level support and training for our foster families, trauma-informed care, and a variety of additional services to ensure that every child is given the appropriate level of care and brought up in a positive and nurturing environment.

If you’ve got questions or you’re considering fostering, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Asia

    Is it possible that foster kids act out because their punishments are limited? Like let’s say they come from a family that let them do whatever they want, but was also physically abused. Could it be possible that a child may act up because they know you can’t spank them and they don’t see timeout as bad as being hit? And is there ways to work around it? I help my mom watch her foster kids sometimes and there’s days that I just wanna give them a smack on their butt but can’t cause they’re foster kids and I don’t want my mom getting in trouble.

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